Dr. Eliza Mosher looked down at her womb. It was made of red silk. Directly above it was a coil of intestines, stitched together out of a fine yellow ribbon. A plump red heart hung amidst blue veins and red arteries made of string.

The entire ensemble was draped across the bodice of her black dress.

Before her was a class of young Victorian women with high collars, skirts that hid their shoes, and great leg-o-mutton sleeves puffed around them. These girls, all students at the University of Michigan in 1897, lived in a world where it was taboo to refer to their lower extremities—including the word “leg”—in mixed company because of the improper images it might conjure. But there they were, saying it and more in Mosher’s hygiene class, the first class of its kind in LSA.

As Mosher arranged her hand-made anatomical model, cupping the bottom of the silk uterus, all the ladies in the room drew in an uncomfortable breath.

It wasn’t the first time the controversial class had been taught, and it wouldn’t be the last. At least not with Mosher running things. Mosher was the first Dean of Women, the first professor of Hygiene and Public Health in LSA, and the first doctor to serve the students of the University of Michigan. She was unconventional for her time, and she was hardly beloved among students or her fellow faculty. But she was determined to fight for women’s health and equality on campus, creating a legacy that would result in safe, sanitary dorms, and comprehensive anatomy education for women—not to mention regular vaccinations.

In order to fully understand her impact, and how she came to U-M in the first place, we have to go back—way back—to the days when U-M had no campus housing and no women.

And there was also the small matter of a gymnasium.

A Loo, A Lady, and a Gym

Since the 1850s, and the time of U-M President Henry Philip Tappan, the University campus lacked personal accommodations for students. There were classrooms, a library, lab space, plenty of churches, and even an observatory built in 1868. But there were no dormitories. Tappan opposed them, preferring instead to convert the campus’s meager living spaces to scholarly use.

As a consequence, the all-male student body lived in boarding houses around the small town of Ann Arbor. The living accommodations were varied, and not always safe. There were no plumbed indoor bathrooms in the entire city, and there was poor sanitation, plus the typhoid and cholera that came with it.

But as the understanding of germ theory spread, and the need for better sanitation grew, the idea of cleanliness and bodily health came into fashion. In 1870, as James B. Angell was negotiating with the Regents to assume the presidency of the University of Michigan, one of his many conditions for taking the job was that a bathroom be installed in the president’s home. It was the first in Ann Arbor.

Toilets, ladies, and calisthenics all arrived on campus together.

By 1891, the gymnasium was delayed, mostly due to funding issues. At least until Joshua Waterman, an alumnus from Detroit, donated $20,000 to complete it, as long as the University contributed $20,000 of its own. Almost immediately, female students, now numbering in the hundreds on campus, worried they wouldn’t have the same access to the facility as men.

Though the off-campus housing had evolved into a benign detente between the sexes (where other universities were organized in dormitories with strict social codes, and operated in loco parentis, Ann Arbor had grown proud of its mixed rooming houses where men and women lived together), on campus anti-female sentiment remained strong. When directly asked about his own intentions in funding the gym, Waterman replied, “I have given the money to the women of the University as well as the men.”

Unfortunately, this sentiment did not sway the campus administration, and the new Waterman gymnasium was for men only.

Women protested by making an impassioned and well-respected plea to the Michigan legislature for money to build their own gym. They lost on the legislative front, but the gained an admirer: founder of the Michigan Women’s Club Movement, Lucinda Stone. She prevailed on two regents, Levi Barbour and Charles Hebard, for financial help. In 1895, Hebard and Barbour donated $30,000 toward the project, and stipulated that the remaining $15,000 be raised through charitable giving. It was largely U-M women who answered this call, raising close to $21,000. Architects at John Scott and Company were hired.

During this early design phase, in 1895, President Angell reached out to Mosher and offered her the position as the University’s first Dean of Women.

Offers and Negotiations

Mosher was tempted by Angell’s offer, but not easily swayed.

A graduate of U-M’s Medical School in 1874, she had been very happily running her Brooklyn, New York, practice for women and children. She had delivered hundreds of babies, and she had not lost any of them. She was the first physician at the Sherborn Reformatory Prison for Massachusetts Women, later becoming its matron, and she was ultimately succeeded by Clara Barton. Mosher taught at Wellesley as well as Adelphi University, was the women’s physician at Vassar College, and, as a consequence of her successful medical practice in Brooklyn, had been elected vice-president of the Brooklyn Pathological Society—the first woman to hold such a post.

When she was approached by Angell in 1895 to assume the role of Dean of Women, there were no female faculty at the University, despite years of lobbying from alumnae. She insisted that, if she came, she be appointed professor of gynecology in the Medical School.

Unfortunately, Dr. Victor Vaughan, Dean of the Medical School, who had been Mosher’s classmate, refused to allow it. As a counter offer, he proposed allowing her to assist him in instructing a hygiene class in the Literature Department. “There are many questions in hygiene,” he noted, “especially those concerning sex, which I cannot very well and do not discuss.”

Mosher declined Angell’s offer.

Undaunted, Angell took a different course. He accepted her refusal graciously and said the matter would rest there. But, he continued, since they were already corresponding, if it wasn’t an imposition, would she render her professional opinion on the proposed architectural design for the new women’s gym? She was, after all, well versed in anatomy and was a staunch advocate for physical education. She had long ago declared war on the corset, had designed several undergarments to replace the dreaded device, and even had designed a new bicycle seat specially suited to the female anatomy.

She replied with a list: a whole new plan for window placement, along with a fully developed, four-year curriculum for physiology, psychology, hygiene, and health. Angell answered by offering her the gymnasium: She would run it in every detail, be given the title Dean of Women, be the campus physician, and would be granted the rank of full professor in the Literary College, where she would, alone, teach the hygiene course.

With her own building to rule, and with the rank of professor, Mosher accepted, arriving on campus in 1897 just as the gymnasium was being completed.

“I Learned How in Prison”

Mosher’s new position was received with mixed feelings by women on campus and by University alumnae. Many of these women, Mosher among them, had braved Ann Arbor’s boarding houses, and their grime, along with the men. Those women had stood in line by the old post office to buy their firewood, just as the men had. Those women had excelled in the classes, just as the men had. But the men had built their own gymnasium, and more and more of them were forming fraternities in order to privately build better living spaces for themselves. Women had entered into the new sorority movement, but as the minority population on campus—and without the right to vote for legislators who could champion their causes—their resources could hardly be considered equal. Mosher, if questionable, was at the very least necessary.

With her white hair in a severe pompadour, and steel-rimmed glasses, this imposing woman who had kept female prisoners in line arrived on campus with her favorite horse, two maids, and no family. As Dorothy McGuigan notes in her history of women on U-M’s campus, A Dangerous Experiment (Center for Continuing Education of Women, 1970), Mosher “instituted health examinations for entering students, marched them up and down, measured them from head to toe, criticized their posture, and denounced their corsets.” She made calisthenics a requirement, and designed a uniform for the gymnasium: “knee-length bloomers made of no less than 12 yards of black serge, worn over a white flannel under-blouse.”

McGuigan went on to quote a former student, Ellen Bach: “‘She marched us around like a regiment of soldiers. It was useless to say one word against physical education. Mosher called anyone who didn’t like it ‘just plain lazy.’”

Once, when a student protested and questioned the origin of these procedures, Mosher exclaimed, “I learned how in prison!”

This stern attitude was accompanied by regular vaccinations administered by a professional, and of course a comprehensive education regarding the anatomy of the human body. It was vivid, practical, and, to most of the students, quite shocking. “Her lectures on anatomy and physiology,” one student opined, “were horrible to us. She’d try on her silk organs like a dress and talk about them freely. It made us shudder.”

Mosher was puzzled that so few female students confided in her. She held Friday night dinner parties for students, but mostly men would come and she got along with them famously. By her second year, as many men as women had signed up for her hygiene classes. But over time, the women softened.

Students took to calling her their “other mother.”

Independent Women

Mosher may have been too busy doing her job to think much about how she was being perceived.

Hazzard describes a typical day for Mosher: up by 7:00 A.M., breakfast and prayers, then office work and classes. Then she saw patients, ate lunch, worked through until 5:00 P.M. Her first break of the day was a carriage ride around town, or tea with guests. Then dinner, again with guests, and entertaining. “At nine, without apology,” Hazzard wrote, “she would dismiss any guests present and retire for further work.” She stayed current with medical journals, graded, read, and then went to bed at midnight.

Mosher was driven by the health and prosperity of people. She had lost two brothers and a niece to tuberculosis, and these losses pressed her to pursue medicine even when her own mother declared she would prefer to see Mosher “shut up in a lunatic asylum” than see her go to medical school.

In 1898, U-M’s Dean of the Medical School returned to Ann Arbor from the Spanish-American War with a revolutionary understanding of typhoid fever that prompted him to run for city alderman and implement a city-wide campaign to clean up sewage in everyone’s backyards. Mosher was doing her part to incorporate his findings directly into her hygiene class, and to continue to raise money to improve the gymnasium (by then called The Barbour Gymnasium after Regent Levi Barbour), and she was working to develop the Women’s League in order to make life on campus for women safer and more productive.

While Mosher felt that the sororities were successfully taking care of their own, half of the female student body was “independent,” and Mosher intended to have the League help them. She divided the women in the League into teams of 10, and asked each team leader to report directly to her. They used the gymnasium as their meetinghouse, and from there they staged many charitable socials that raised money for their projects. One of the most important of these was a registry of boarding houses, which Mosher administered.

When she retired in 1902 due to poor health, Mosher had established a strong system for fostering the health and development of women, and had provided the Women’s League with an organizational structure and a fundraising apparatus that would serve it for decades. She had built, over several years, close ties with the Women’s Clubs all around the state, and with alumnae all across the country.

She was replaced by Myra Jordan, wife of the University’s assistant librarian. Jordan lacked an advanced degree, but she had a deep store of organizational skills and, under her care, Mosher’s full plans for the University finally bore fruit. Jordan built upon Mosher’s work cultivating donors for women’s health and safety, and she continued to tirelessly advocate for clean and safe living conditions.

Almost immediately, Jordan expanded and deepened the registry of Ann Arbor’s rooming house registry. She had all the houses inspected and certified as League Houses, which required that they were consistently cleaned and that the women lodged there had equal access to common spaces.

Coeducation and the Dorm on the Hill

The strength of the Women’s League and of the Barbour Gymnasium attracted more donors to the cause of coeducation. People were still dying of typhoid fever in turn-of-the-century Ann Arbor, and several donors stepped in to finally build the first dormitories on campus since Tappan had closed the living quarters more than a half-century earlier.

William Cook built the first dormitory for women to honor his mother, Martha Walford Cook, which opened in 1915. That same year, the children of Helen H. Newberry (whose husband, John, had been a member of the class of 1847) had a residence hall built in her honor. Regent Barbour believed that the living conditions on campus could be improved. In addition to supporting the women’s gym in its early phases, he also started a scholarship for women from Asia in 1914. He hoped that educating more Asian women in the West would diminish the likelihood of war in the Pacific. When one of the first two women he sponsored, Mutsu Kikuchi, contracted typhus in Ann Arbor and later died in Japan, he was determined to improve campus living conditions. By 1919 he had completed a residence hall named for his own mother, Betsy Barbour. Another house was donated by Judge Noah Cheever as a women’s residence in 1921. For several years, these four buildings constituted the entire dormitory stock on campus.

All of the dormitories were for women, and all of them had been financed through gifts to the University, largely driven by concern over the health and safety of women on campus. Dormitories for men, many financed by the legislature, would follow.

In 1929, the Women’s League built the Michigan League, after raising more than a million dollars for that purpose.

In 1930, on land with a hill donated by Detroit alumnae, the University built the largest women’s dormitory to date. With 450 rooms, the hall was so large that two thirds of the certified League Houses were forced to close. By 1934 the number of women housed on campus was more than 700. The number of women living independently in League Houses was as low as 100.

The birth of the modern campus was complete. Women on campus had a gym, a social union, dormitories, and a dean. With this first massive new dorm on the hill, soon to be followed by many others, the campus had been irretrievably changed.

The dorm was called Mosher-Jordan Hall.